Sorry, but “Survey” is not the new “WAP”

Over the past few months or so (these months being the start of 2020 and the whole global pandemic known as COVID-19 – maybe you have heard about it), the technical world has had more than enough time to delve into topics that maybe, in different times, we wouldn’t have delved into. The basis of the conversation is valid, don’t get me wrong, but I think this extra time of not being together has allowed some topics to outlive their usefulness. This particular topic is around the word “survey.”

Information Technology people, specifically wireless IT people, sure are nerdy and dorky all at the same time!

I’m not going to “investigate” the origins of where the word “survey” comes from or what some holy reference documents purposes the word to mean (I’m too lazy to do that, go Google it yourself). For my purpose today, I am going to use the meaning of “survey” as to go somewhere to gather information or determine what is actual happening. Think about a land surveyor who marks property lines or helps determine how large a plot of land really is. The surveyor, trained in the ways of surveying, goes to the place in question and does their thing. Easy peasy.

Now – let’s jump forward to today and where this has gone completely off the rails. How we got here really doesn’t matter, we are here today so let’s deal with it. Where we are is a point of the Wi-Fi world being confused on how, or if we still use, the word “survey” as part of what we do for a living. Some people will argue that survey has no place in our vocabulary, and it should be stricken and never used again, much like the term “WAP”. Hence the title of this post and something that was said to me recently.

The problem, as I see it, is not in the use oof the word, but the misuse of the word. For a long time, there was a step in the greater evolution of Wi-Fi networks that was called a “predictive survey”. I don’t know where it came from, nor do I care to assign attribution. Doesn’t matter the “where” or “why”, but the “what” didn’t work. For the longest time, a predictive survey was the act of sitting in front of a computer and, using a special program, predict what the RF signal would be like in any given wireless network. This doesn’t apply because from my point of view, the person doing the work didn’t go anywhere to gain this knowledge or information. There was no survey done. No measuring, no looking, no checking out.

Sure, it’s a prediction so the word “predictive” works, but not survey. Is it the word “survey” fault that we used it wrong? Of course not! Is it the word “survey” fault that we swung the pendulum so far the other way that some folks are saying we should strike the word “survey” from our vocabulary? Of course not! This whole mess is of our own doing, and I am looking to set some boundaries for future generations to have a guide to point to (either are the right way or the wrong way – even I can’t say!)

My hope is that with some guides in place, we can all reach a place where we at least have an understanding, even if we don’t agree.

Surveys

Any time someone goes on site to collect or verify information, why not call it survey? You don’t have to call it a survey, but I don’t think calling it a survey is wrong. In the Wi-Fi world, this can be a building survey comprising of collecting data for any purpose.

  1. Measuring walls and openings.
  2. Measuring attenuation values of certain structures like walls or storage racks.
  3. Ceiling surveys looking for locations where APs can’t be placed.
  4. Collecting information about the wired networks the APs will be using. Might be FastEthernet switches or Cat3 cable they want to use their shiny new Wi-Fi 6 APs on.
  5. Figuring out they have an additional floor they forgot to tell you about and the sales person didn’t care to mention.
  6. Measuring the RF spectrum.

Any one of these tasks is a survey, plain and simple, but sometimes we get lazy and don’t make the effort to clarify what we are doing. Adjectives exist for a reason and we should really use them. They make communication so much better!

Instead, I propose we keep the word survey, but do a better job of qualifying what type of survey we are doing.

  • Measuring walls, openings, and attenuation values as well as documenting architecture features (like that “extra” floor) becomes a “building survey.”
  • Collecting information about the wired infrastructure becomes a “wired network survey.”
  • Collecting information about the RF spectrum becomes an “RF Survey.”

To be fair, in the exchange I referenced earlier, I was lazy when I didn’t quantify what survey I was referring to. That’s on me.

The context was around collecting RF spectrum information and my point was the purpose of collecting RF spectrum data (pre-deployment RF survey, APoS, post installation RF survey, or RF troubleshooting) would change the data that was collected. This change in data collection method would, in turn, change the data that was collected, and such, data for one purpose wasn’t as useful as one might hope it was for a different purpose. Data collected while walking around quickly isn’t as valuable as data collected while staying in one area and watching spectrum.

For pre-deployment RF surveys (they happen, but not often due to cost and limited usefulness) or post-installation RF validation surveys, the surveyor walks around with a radio of sort, tracking themself on a map, and then a program uses the collected data to build a measured RF model. During an APoS RF survey, the area and scope is very defined and while the data collected is useful, it’s not the same as the pre or post RF installation survey. During a RF troubleshooting survey, the reason and data collected will vary based on the trouble call. Still, really useful information, but only for the reason the data was collected.

Customers, and management, might not like to hear it, but RF is a tricky business, and one of the pitfalls is collecting data about RF is not an easy, straightforward exercise. There is as much art in RF work as there is science, and good art can’t be rushed. As far as the science part goes, we owe it to ourselves to be as “sciencey” as we can about it, and give the terms the proper respect they deserve.

Use at least one adjective, two is even better, when describing what it is you are doing. Future generations, and future you, will appreciate it!